Nov 17, 2023 - News

Salt Lake's downtown recovery depends on what counts as "downtown"

Downtown foot traffic recovery, spring 2023
Data: University of Toronto; Note: Downtown defined as the central location with the highest concentration of employment in each metro area; Chart: Axios Visuals

Salt Lake City has been held up as a model for downtown recovery since the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Yes, but: A new study suggests the extent of the rebound depends on what area counts as "downtown."

Driving the news: Salt Lake's downtown activity from March to June, measured by cellphone location data, was about 82% of the activity level recorded during the same months in 2019, according to researchers at the University of Toronto.

  • That ranks No. 17 among more than 50 U.S. cities.

Catch up quick: Previously, the same researchers concluded that Salt Lake's downtown activity was 39% higher than before the pandemic — by far the nation's most robust recovery.

The intrigue: The previous analyses defined a city's downtown as the ZIP codes with the highest concentration of jobs.

  • After complaints from some cities and business associations, researchers changed the definition to measure job concentration by city block rather than ZIP code.

Zoom in: Salt Lake City's newly defined "downtown" is now much smaller: an area roughly from South Temple to 400 South and 150 West to 200 East.

  • The old "downtown" was bounded roughly by North Temple and 1300 South, and 600 West to 500 East.
  • Researchers also shifted from using two location data sources to one and looked at a slightly more current time frame than in their last update.

What they're saying: "We've looked at cities' own definitions of downtown, but those boundaries are historic and don't reflect where the current buildings are, or they're political, or they've been drawn to match census boundaries," Karen Chapple, director of the School of Cities and professor of geography and planning, University of Toronto, told Axios. "So they have the same flaws as using ZIP codes."

  • "We decided to go with job densities ... figuring that's what people really care about — these are the hearts of our regions and of our cities."

Of note: Office-dominated downtowns have struggled to recover relative to multi-use downtowns.

  • That means defining "downtown" more narrowly by job density could exclude some of the entertainment- and leisure-focused areas that can drive recovery.
  • For example, the new map excludes the Delta Center, most of the Salt Palace Convention Center, Pioneer Park, Abravanel Hall, the Gateway, Washington Square, the Main Library and a number of hotels and new apartment complexes.

The other side: The old map included multiple neighborhoods that a lot of us would not call "downtown," like the Granary District and Central Ninth.

What's next: Chapple's team will roll out a new widget allowing users to choose from different versions of "downtown" to illustrate how any given city's numbers might change depending on the chosen area.

The bottom line: Ask 100 people to draw you a map of "downtown," and you'll get 100 different maps.

  • That's the big challenge with analyses like these — but as long as they're grounded in sound logic and the approach is refined based on feedback, they're insightful nonetheless.
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